FORMER Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra gestures at Don Mueang airport in Bangkok, Thailand, Aug. 22, 2023. — REUTERS

BANGKOK — Thailand’s fugitive former premier Thaksin Shinawatra on Tuesday set foot on Thai soil for the first time since 2008, returning from self-exile to prison just hours before his allies contest a parliamentary vote in a bid to form a government.

Mr. Thaksin, the billionaire figurehead of the populist juggernaut Pheu Thai Party, fled abroad 15 years ago before he was jailed in absentia for abuse of power, two years after the military toppled him in a coup, alleging corruption and disloyalty to the powerful monarchy, which he refutes.

Mr. Thaksin, 74, appeared briefly with family members at a private jet terminal at Bangkok’s Don Mueang airport, smiling and waving to hundreds of supporters, before he was escorted in a police convoy to the Supreme Court, then taken to prison, where, the court said, he will serve eight years.

As he emerged from the airport wearing a black suit, red tie and yellow lapel pin bearing a royal insignia, Mr. Thaksin clasped his hands together and bowed in a traditional wai greeting before a portrait of the king and queen.

Mr. Thaksin’s daughter, Paetongtarn Shinawatra, confirmed he had arrived safely and posted images on Facebook of a smiling Thaksin with his family, including seven grandchildren.

“Dad has returned to Thailand and has entered the legal process,” Ms. Paetongtarn said.

The vaunted arrival of Thailand’s most famous politician came as the lower house and military-appointed Senate convened ahead of a vote later on Tuesday on prime ministerial candidate Srettha Thavisin, a real estate mogul who was thrust into politics by Pheu Thai just a few months ago.

Thailand has been under a caretaker government since March and its new parliament has been deadlocked for weeks after the anti-establishment winner of a May election, Move Forward, were blocked by conservative lawmakers, leaving heavyweight Pheu Thai to lead a new effort.

A winner of five elections over the past two decades, Pheu Thai, founded by the Shinawatra family, has agreed a contentious alliance including two parties backed by a military that overthrew governments led by Mr. Thaksin and sister Yingluck Shinawatra in 2006 and 2014 coups.

His return has prompted widespread speculation that Pheu Thai’s alliance with its old enemies in the military and the establishment is part of a behind-the-scenes deal to allow him to come back safely.

Mr. Srettha, 60, on Monday said Pheu Thai had not choice but to partner with some rivals that it had earlier vowed not to work with.

“We are not lying to the people, but we have to be realistic,” said Mr. Srettha, who has the support of 317 lawmakers and needs 58 votes from the Senate to secure the requisite backing of half of the legislature.

LOVED AND LOATHED
The return of Mr. Thaksin, who is loved and loathed in equal measure in Thailand, is almost certain to overshadow that vote. Hundreds of red-shirted supporters carrying banners gathered at the airport, outside the court and the prison to greet him, some chanting “PM Thaksin.”

A former policeman, telecoms tycoon and English Premier League football club owner, Mr. Thaksin won the hearts of millions of working-class Thais with populist giveaways ranging from cash handouts and village loans to farm subsidies and universal healthcare.

But his popularity and his support for a new wave of capitalist upstarts put him at odds with a nexus of royalists, military and old money families, triggering an intractable power struggle that is still being played out.

Mr. Thaksin maintains all charges and allegations against him were trumped up to keep him from power and has over the years repeatedly reneged on promises to return home. He has spent 17 years in self-imposed exile since he was toppled in the 2006 coup.

Pheu Thai has denied Mr. Thaksin’s involvement in its bid to form a government and the former leader has for months denied conspiring with the generals who toppled him and sister Ms. Yingluck.

Ms. Yingluck, who also lives in self-imposed exile to avoid a jail term for government negligence, said she backed his decision to return.

“For the past 17 years, you feel isolated, lonely, troubled and missing home but you persevered,” she posted on Facebook.

“I believe that you have spent time thinking before deciding … I respect your decisive decision.” — Reuters